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Full Circle?

Paul White's Leader By Paul White
Published June 2006

The recording industry has gone through some pretty interesting twists and turns over the past two or three decades — first with affordable multitrack tape, then with digital formats such as the Alesis ADAT and the Tascam DA88, and now the all-pervasive computer. We have affordable, studio-quality microphones, very respectable active monitors and practical solutions to home studio acoustics, all at far less than the cost of those early tape-based systems. So why isn't everyone happy, and where will it all go next?

Clearly, those companies that manufacture hardware synths, samplers and drum machines can't be over the moon at the way software instruments have replaced their hardware counterparts in the studio, but when you think about it logically, they are the last people who should be surprised. After all, it was the synth manufacturers who got behind MIDI, and MIDI led to sequencing. It soon became evident that sequencing was best handled by computers, as a screen is a good way to display a lot of information, and if you want to integrate audio and MIDI, then putting it all in the computer makes more sense than trying to sync a hardware recorder to a computer or vice versa. Once you get to that stage, putting the instruments into software makes perfect sense as all the settings are saved with the song, there are no wiring problems or rack space issues, and the sound quality is as good as that of your audio interface.

Today we see hardware fighting back, in the main using the 'if you can't beat them, join them' philosophy. Already we have a number of manufacturers launching outboard effects and processors that can be controlled via a plug-in-style editor window. Of course their advantage is that they take no CPU load, which in turn means you can hang onto the same computer for longer. This is often a good thing, not only for financial reasons, but because once you have everything working perfectly, the last thing you want to do is start again from scratch with a new system, especially if there's just been a major OS or hardware upgrade that leaves you with non-compatible plug-ins for the next year or so while all the individual software companies play catch-up!

Manufacturers of audiophile hardware are also looking at analogue summing mixers as a way to warm up the supposedly sterile sound of digital mixes. If this does indeed catch on in the mainstream, then it will provide a straightforward means for users to route hardware MIDI instruments directly into their mix, and if they include plug-in-style control panels, none of the advantages of 'in-the-box' production are lost. After all, the main benefit of a computer is not that it does everything, but rather that it provides a central point of control and display, and it remembers all of our songs and settings. If we can evolve new systems that are a true symbiosis of computer technology and outboard hardware, then raw computer power will become less of an issue and we may finally get the stable systems we demand with all the processing and music-generating power we need. Indeed, external console-style mixers may again come back into fashion if a standard can be agreed to automatically save their settings directly into a sequencer song whenever you press a Save key.

So will the day come when we'll again get to see the majority of our synths and processors as external rack units or Firewire DSP boxes, our hard disk recorders as independent rackable units, and the computer as mainly a MIDI sequencer, sample player and control centre? It all depends on the will of the industry to co-operate in the same concerted way they did when agreeing the MIDI standard that created their problems in the first place!

Paul White Editor In Chief